PPN Roundtable: Climate Change’s Impacts on Parks and Recreation

images: Matt Boehner and courtesy of the 2022 NEWEA Annual Conference session “Effects of Sea Level Rise on Maine’s Wastewater Infrastructure”

With World Landscape Architecture Month just two weeks away, ASLA’s Parks & Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team have compiled observations made and actions taken in response to climate change and its manifold impacts—impacts that are being felt around the world. Though something so wide-reaching can be difficult to grasp fully in scale and scope, we hope these updates from your peers in landscape architecture and from parks and rec departments across the country may help make the sprawling challenges wrought by climate change a little more tangible—and demonstrate how imperative it is to take action now.

Contributions for today’s post come from:

  • Matt Boehner, ASLA – Columbia, Missouri
  • Kalle Maggio, ASLA – New England
  • Bronwen Mastro, ASLA, PLA, LEED BD+C – Bend, Oregon
  • Emily Paskewicz, ASLA, PLA – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Steph Thisius-Sanders, ASLA, PLA – Bakersfield, California

Matt Boehner, ASLA
Senior Landscape Architect, Columbia Parks and Recreation
Columbia, Missouri

There has been an increase in large flood event storms since 2015, with 100-, 200-, and even 500-year events occurring every two or three years. Over the course of June 23-25, 2021, the Mid-Missouri area recorded nearly 11 inches of rainfall, resulting in over $500,000 in flood damage to parks and trails throughout Columbia.

image: Matt Boehner

One response has been wetland redevelopment projects in floodplains, including the MKT Wetlands Project and 3M Flat Branch-Hinkson Creek Wetlands.

image: Matt Boehner
image: Matt Boehner

The City has purchased large floodplains to preserve as open space and prioritized projects that promote clearing invasive plant species in floodplains. These invasives are replaced with functional flood detention cells planted with native wetland species, reducing flood damage and providing native habitat within and around the city.

image: Matt Boehner
image: Matt Boehner
image: Matt Boehner

Kalle Maggio, ASLA
Landscape Architect, Wright-Pierce
New England

Efforts to adapt to climate change have been a major concern for policy makers and professionals in the built environment. One of the major impacts of climate change is the increase in ocean temperatures, which exacerbates the severity of large storm events in local coastal communities due to the resulting rise in sea levels. It is crucial that states take immediate action to update and apply new policies and standards that will protect these coastal communities and their existing amenities.

In coastal communities, parks and recreational facilities tend to be in close proximity to the waterfront. One important factor that most communities underestimate is the impact of stormwater and wastewater removal, and the detriments should it fail. Without changing regulations to encourage adapting to climate change, this issue leads to an unpleasant experience for patrons and inevitably results in underutilization of any effected park’s intended purpose.

As a state with 3,500 miles of coastline, Maine is taking a proactive approach to climate action.

From town to state level, civil and environmental engineer firm Wright-Pierce has been advising communities in New England and Florida on how to brace for the impact that these storms will have on the aging infrastructure. During the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Annual Conference, Maeve Carlson from Wright-Pierce, with help from members of the Sierra Club, Maine Climate Council, and the Island Institute, presented the session Effects of Sea Level Rise on Maine’s Wastewater Infrastructure. Part of their discussion was about how Maine assigned a Council comprised of state officials, scientists, industry leaders, and community members to develop the Maine Won’t Wait Climate Action Plan.

Maine’s Climate Action Plan is a four-year plan with eight strategies that allow Maine to mitigate and adapt to climate change:

  • Embrace the Future of Transportation in Maine
  • Modernize Maine Buildings
  • Reduce Carbon Emissions in Energy and Industries Sectors
  • Grow Maine’s Clean-Energy Economy and Protect Our Natural Resource Industries
  • Protect Maine’s Environment
  • Build Healthy and Resilient Communities
  • Invest in Climate-Ready Infrastructure
  • Engage with Maine People and Communities

Through the next few decades, these strategies will help take the current built environment and transform it by promoting economic opportunities for projects that support their surrounding natural systems. Wastewater is one of these major infrastructures that are at high risk from the rise in sea levels. This is due to facilities that are commonly located at low elevations to fulfill gravity sewer requirements. In the presentation given by Carlson, an example was provided of a community that is at risk to sea level rise: York, ME (see Figure 1: Aerial of York, ME Coastal Community). Flooding of these systems will cause damage to the equipment at these stations and result in unhealthy conditions to the environment and the communities that it serves. The rise in sea level has also resulted in a concurrent rise in the water table, inundating existing stormwater systems and rendering them unable to function properly (see Figure 2: York, ME Category 4 Hurricane Inundation Risk Climate Adaptation Plan).

Figure 1: Aerial of York, ME Coastal Community, courtesy of “Effects of Sea Level Rise on Maine’s Wastewater Infrastructure” presented at the 2022 NEWEA Annual Conference.
Figure 2: York, ME Category 4 Hurricane Inundation Risk-Climate Adaptation Plan, courtesy of “Effects of Sea Level Rise on Maine’s Wastewater Infrastructure” presented at the 2022 NEWEA Annual Conference.

In summary, the effect of climate is inevitable but its impacts on our infrastructure doesn’t have to be. Parks and recreational facilities can be protected by utilizing regulations that adapt to climate change. It is important that policy makers and industry leaders not only find ways to adapt but to also aid communities to understand how the effect of climate change impacts their existing and future infrastructure. The climate-ready investments that Maine is making will not only save their natural amenities, but will also save on infrastructure costs and maintenance efforts in the long run.

Bronwen Mastro, ASLA, PLA, LEED BD+C
Bend Park and Recreation District
Bend, Oregon

Situated along the Deschutes River, Bend is a small city in Central Oregon, located where the eastern edge of the Cascade Range meets the high desert. Ecosystems transition from ponderosa pine forest to juniper and sagebrush. What started as a logging town has become a gateway to outdoor sports, including mountain biking, fishing, hiking, and skiing. Today, tourism is booming and the population is quickly growing. Both climate change and human activity are changing the landscape.

As the climate changes, groups of vegetation, pine forests in particular, are migrating higher in elevation. Their current habitat is no longer viable. Adapted to a hotter, drier climate, western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) are expanding and taking over. Somewhat contradictory, western juniper is both native and invasive. They will outcompete other plants in the ecosystem, reducing available water and allowing weeds to take over. This is changing the way many western land managers, including those at Bend Park and Recreation District (BPRD), manage their land to try and gain some control over juniper invasion. One tactic is to strategically remove juniper to free up water for other native plants, such as sagebrush and bunch grasses, to reestablish. Another strategy is regional collaboration among agencies to take a holistic approach to land management and weed mitigation.

Highly flammable, regular fires historically kept juniper spread in check and limited their dominance in the landscape. That fire is now prevented by human habitation of the land that started with the arrival of white settlers. Though the quantity of fires is down, more acres are burning in massive wildfire events. Summer in the west is now characterized by smoke, which affects how BPRD staff work. N95 masks need to be worn when the air quality becomes unhealthy and staff cannot be out in the field when the temperatures are too high. These conditions also impact how outdoor recreation programs are run, sometimes shutting them down completely.

Parks play a vital role in public open space. They need to find a balance of providing recreation opportunities while responsibly stewarding the land. Every landscape cannot be kept pristine, but there is a lot land managers can do to keep their land resilient. This includes good tree spacing, vegetation and weed management, diligence, and patience. The restoration of natural areas takes time. It requires tedious work, such as hand pulling weeds. It requires public education and code changes to support responsible land management.

Emily Paskewicz, ASLA, PLA
Landscape Architect, Gilmore & Associates
Greater Philadelphia Area

Pre-Hurricane Ida, I began working with a municipality near Philadelphia that has frontage on the Schuylkill River. The project was a planning study to address multiple issues within a designated riverfront study area, including multi-modal transportation access and land use. Much of the community engagement for this project, including a public survey, took place after the storm. While I can’t say for certain what the responses to our survey would have looked like before the hurricane, I can say that the shift in public opinion was immediate and noticeable.

The survey was intended to solicit feedback about vehicular traffic, biking, and pedestrian accessibility. Instead, comments were overwhelmed with strong responses about the high price that the study area was paying for heavy development along the riverfront and within a floodplain. That price? Severe flooding with corresponding damages and little to no public recreational access to the riverfront. Addressing flooding and a lack of recreational access to the riverfront wasn’t the intent of this study and it still isn’t the main focus, but the emphasis that locals placed on the impacts of climate-exacerbated flooding and recreation within the focus area have forced us to examine them.

The lone open space parcel in the study area is actually a County-owned park. The park is comprised of several acres of woodland, brush, and floodplain that is not currently accessible to the public. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, while floodwaters sat on the surrounding pavements of developed lands, this park soaked up the waters on its richly vegetated acres. Furthermore, it’s the only riverfront parcel within our study that is likely to remain undeveloped. While plans for this park are strictly conceptual at the moment, several flood-resilient improvements have been discussed, including:

  • Raising the heights of boardwalk trails and gathering spaces.
  • Securing site amenities to a proper depth to avoid erosion and scour.
  • Utilizing previous paving wherever possible.

However, the most important mitigation strategy for this site, and really the study area as a whole, is the most obvious one: leave open space open, especially within a floodplain. While the study will recommend exploring options to provide flood-resistant public access to the park, our project team and the public understand that protecting this open space is the most effective tool for flood mitigation and recreational access.

Steph Thisius-Sanders, ASLA, PLA
Planning & Construction Director, North of the River Recreation & Park District (NOR)
Bakersfield, California

Our extreme weather conditions deal with the impacts of little water and longer periods of drought. Bakersfield and the Central Valley of California typically receive less than five inches of rain during a water year and rely on the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada not only for residential water supply, but also for irrigated landscapes and irrigated farmland. Water is especially coveted during late June through early October when temperatures are in the triple digits, sometimes for 30-50+ consecutive days, with relative humidity at or less than 20%. In recent years, rainfall and snowpack have become even more limited and heavier restrictions have been placed on ornamental landscapes and acre-feet allocations for farmers.

Traditionally, North of the River Recreation & Park District (NOR) parks have been designed and operated without much mind to water use. During the most recent drought through the mid- to late 2010s, water restrictions severely cut the amount of water we could use. Conventional design was large swaths of natural grass for sports fields, passive areas, and throughout the park due to the ease of maintenance—mow, blow, and go. During the drought, greater emphasis was placed on maintaining the safety and playability of our sports fields while reducing and/or eliminating irrigation schedules to passive play areas and planter areas. The biggest impact was to trees, many of which had established surface root systems because of the constant watering of overhead irrigation. In turn, our oldest parks with 80+ year-old trees also lost mature shade and became less desirable during the summer.

As the District moves forward with new park designs, future water use (or lack thereof) is prioritized while providing for cost effective maintenance practices for long range park use. When one lives in the breadbasket of the nation, growing everything from almonds, blueberries, citrus, and carrots to walnuts, stone fruit, table grapes, and lettuce greens throughout the year, the use of water changes from the want of a lush turfgrass yard to the need to feed millions of people throughout the country.

The following strategies are not new in concept for landscape architects, but are newer in practice for parks and open space within Central California:

  • More planter areas than turf areas, with more mass plantings of a few plants that are low water use. Native plants are desired, but Central California is a desert biome and few native plants work year-round in planned landscapes. Mass plantings make for easier maintenance once established; a loss of plants is hardly noticeable in public landscapes and selected plantings need little to no pruning, saving on labor costs compared to a manicured landscape.
  • Smarter irrigation systems, including point-to-point drip irrigation for shrubs, deep well bubblers for trees on separate valves to allow for supplemental watering during extreme drought, weather- and evapotranspiration-based cloud controllers to optimize climate-based watering, in-line fertilizer injectors to feed plant material at each watering and detailed head layout for sports fields—not your typical square or triangular pattern, but understanding use patterns, compaction, and allowing zones for half field rest/maintenance. Each one of these methods may cost more up front and result in more valves per park but extrapolating that cost over the lifetime of the park through maintenance, labor costs, water costs, availability of sports fields, and rentals ends up saving the agency money in the long run.
  • Retaining more water throughout the site instead of in retention basins. Common practice in Bakersfield is to collect all runoff for a development within a deep, fenced retention basin. This is a quick, inexpensive way to collect stormwater and allow for infiltration; however, it can sometimes take up a lot of useable space and requires significant underground infrastructure. Our new park concepts integrate bioswales instead of curbed planter areas to capture and infiltrate the little rainwater we do receive; depressed multi-use fields, up to 18 inches, allow for retention over a larger area during significant flood events; and when a deeper retention basin is needed, utilizing the fenced area for activities such as dog parks to optimize use of the space during the other 90% of the time it isn’t inundated with stormwater. Due to the lack of rainwater that is received, rainwater harvesting for irrigation isn’t cost effective and the cost of using grey water for irrigation breaks the bank. A happy medium is allowing for groundwater recharge during the rainy season.
  • Trees, trees, and more trees. Instead of looking at trees just for shade, we look at them as large area shade trees, ornamental/middle ground trees for filtering the intense late afternoon sun, carbon sequestration trees, visual, solar and/or noise reduction trees instead of walls, wayfinding trees, water efficient trees, pollution tolerant trees, edible trees, soil stabilizing trees, low allergenic trees. As landscape architects, we know all of these things…but to integrate them into constrained, arid landscapes is a challenge. Trees are a solution to climate resilience and in a desert that has poor air quality during the hottest time of the year, we’ll squeeze all the benefits we can get.
  • Using natural turf over synthetic turf. Yes, it needs water, yes it needs to be mowed…however, during the summer months, synthetic turf and its infill gets so hot here it still needs an irrigation system to cool it down so it is safe to play on. The irrigation system also doubles to wash down the turf—we don’t have rain to knock down the dust. NOR also has very high use sports fields and to maintain clean conditions, we’d have to sanitize it at least once a week and would significantly drive up maintenance costs. Good ‘ole fashioned bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) does wonders here and once it’s established, requires less water than many warm seasons turfgrasses. Plus, it’s a living organism that cools the ambient air temperature, promotes biodiversity within the soil, is quite durable, self-repairing, cost effective, and permeable.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, heat and lack of available water are also significant climate extremes, but patience and long term landscape planning for open spaces can effectively mitigate the many negative climate impacts. Parks and open spaces are an endowment in resilience not only now, but as they establish and mature, for generations to come. Few other climate solutions can tout that kind of investment.

This post was written by ASLA’s Parks & Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team.

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